On Sunday, fighters from the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) stormed into Karachi’s international airport. They separated into skirmishing cells, throwing grenades and attempting to hijack planes. By the time they were stopped, 26 innocents lay dead, and footage of the blazing airport was broadcast across the world.
Yesterday the Taliban attacked the airport again. This time a band of motorcyclists sprayed a security post with machine-gun fire.
These attacks are the TTP in its truest form: a band of murderers willing do anything to extract concessions from the Pakistani government. Their message is clear: Unless you grant us full dominion over the tribal regions, our terrorism will continue.
For the United States and Pakistan, these attacks should offer four specific wakeup calls.
First, Pakistani intelligence must abandon its support of terrorist proxies.
In many ways, the TTP is a monster of the Pakistani military’s own making, long viewed by elements of the ISI as a proxy to buffer against Afghanistan and India. Do these latest attacks represent the essence of blowback? Put simply, Pakistan has enabled a resourceful, ideologically dedicated enemy that it cannot control. Allied with remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other hybrid Salafi-Jihadist-inclined foreign fighters, the TTP poses a critical threat to Pakistani security.
This is especially true in Karachi, where a few courageous security officials have been left to resist the TTP’s aggression. It’s a dangerous job. Back in January, Karachi’s security chief was assassinated for taking the fight to the TTP constantly. Pakistan’s intelligence services must get real. Fortunately, the new army chief (and most powerful man in the country), Raheel Sharif, has made tackling the TTP a top priority. We must hope that these attacks will give him the ability to assert a more unified and aggressive counterterrorism strategy.
Second, Pakistani politicians must end their flirtation with the TTP.
The TTP’s power is about politics as much as military capability. While Pakistan has long struggled with endemic political corruption and gross patronage networks, a uniquely absurd dynamic has been the political relationships that the TTP has formed. This is best illustrated by the Movement for Justice party’s truly idiotic flirtation with the group. Using the U.S. drone program for populist mobilization, Pakistani politicians have ignored the real threat in their midst. Moreover, in the utter failure of governance, the development of Pakistan’s infrastructure and economy have been stunted. These festering problems are a spring from which extremists find recruits and/or toleration.
Third, the Obama administration must recognize the threat Pakistan faces.
It’s fashionable to claim that the U.S. drone program is a humanitarian disaster, killing hundreds of civilians and fostering even deeper anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. However, while civilians have been killed and Pakistanis certainly have been angered by the drone campaign, there’s little doubt that the drones have saved many Pakistani lives. Moreover, by taking on the TTP, the U.S. has splintered the group. In the aftermath of a November 2013 drone strike that killed the TTP’s then-leader, the group has faced major internal strife. Furious at their loss of influence under the TTP’s new leader, a psychopath named Fazlullah, the major Mehsud faction recently abandoned the group.
The positive result of this separation is twofold. First, various factions are now killing each other (a major Fazlullah-aligned commander was killed last week). Second, in a campaign of divide-and-conquer, assuming General Sharif is able to step up his efforts against the TTP (he seems to have negotiated a deal with the U.S. to reduce drone strikes in return for tougher Pakistani military action), the U.S. can weaken the nexus between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban and the al-Qaeda core/aligned-jihadist officers operating in Pakistan’s tribal regions. For the sake of both U.S. national security and Pakistan’s stability, the U.S. must grasp this opportunity. For a start, by F3ing Fazlullah.
Fourth, the U.S. must prepare for the worst in Pakistan.
On the global worry scale, for the U.S. government, the collapse of the Pakistani government probably ranks highest. After all, nuclear weapons and jihadists are a toxic brew. Still, in the context of Pakistan’s political failures, the TTP’s increasingly aggressive strategy is a major cause for concern. In the years ahead, if Pakistan is unable to address public needs, terrorist groups will find continuing recruits among the country’s bulging youth population. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the Karachi attackers were mostly young men.
To address this threat, the U.S. will have to work tirelessly through frustration to build more constructive counterterrorism relationships with Pakistani security services. We’ll also have to be wary on the domestic front. Fazlullah is the real deal in terms of jihadist zealotry. We must be ready for the TTP’s potential pursuit of transnational terrorism. This may include increasing threats toward the U.S. homeland (perhaps through British-Pakistani extremists). Finally, we must be wary of the risk that the TTP may align with other groups in order to stoke tensions with the new, Hindu-nationalist government of Narendra Modi.
Most importantly, we must realize that our departure from Afghanistan won’t mean we’re removed from strife in South Asia. In many ways, the opposite is true.